[From Bullock's History of IoM, 1816]
Some characteristic Superstitions of the Manx.
THE lower and middle orders of the Manx are, in common with all uncultivated people, greatly addicted to superstition; they have the fullest belief in fairies and witchcraft, and to the supernatural influence of one of these imaginary powers nearly all the good or ill that befalls them is ascribed. As these popular prejudices sometimes throw a considerable light on the character of a nation or people, I shall relate a few of the most prevailing legends, as specimens of the general faith.
Each of the two castles of Rushen and Peel has its appropriate apparition. In Rushen, are said to be subterraneous apartments, inhabited by genii, and giants, their existence having been ascertained by more than one adventurous hero, whose intrepidity has carried them through the mists and obscurity in which the paths leading to these abodes are enveloped. Besides the secluded inhabitants, there are two spirits of different degrees of importance, the one being the apparition of a woman executed for infanticide; the other, no less a personage than the magnanimous Countess of Derby; who, it is constantly affirmed, takes her nightly round on the walls of the castle, where she has been encountered by a multitude of persons, and at great distances of time; but no one has yet had so much compassion on either of these perturbed spirits, as to ask the cause of their wanderings, without which formulae, according to the established etiquette of ghostly courtesy, it its impossible they should either reveal their uneasiness, or rest in their graves.
At Peel Castle is a spectre of still greater notoriety, called the Mauthe Doog, who, so long as the garrison was maintained, made his nightly visits to the guard-room, in the shape of a large black hound; this alarming visitor lead continued the practice for so great a length of time, that the soldiers grew familiar with his presence, and one at length, inspired by liquor, took the resolution to follow the animal to his retreat, which none had yet ventured to explore. It was in vain his comrades sought to restrain the hardihood of this champion; he actually sat out in pursuit of the mysterious intruder; but on his return, which was somewhat speedier than they had expected, he was deprived of all power to relate his adventures' being both speechless and convulsed, in which condition he remained three days, and then died. This tale is alluded to by Walter Scott, in his poem of Marmion.
" But none of all the astonish'd train
Were so dismay'd as Deloraine,
His blood did freeze, his brain did burn,
'Twas fear'd his mind would ne'er return;
For he was speechless, ghastly, wan!
Like him, of whom the story ran,
Who spake the spectre Hound in Man.',
A long story is very gravely related in Sacheverel's account of the island, which I shall repeat in his own words.
" In the year 1690, upon the late king's going to Ireland, a little boy, then scarce eight years old, frequently told the family in which he lived, of two fine gentlemen who daily conversed with him, gave him victuals, and something out of a bottle of a greenish colour, and sweet taste to drink. This making a noise, the present deemster, a man of good sense and probity, went into the mountains to see if he could make any discovery what they were. He found the boy, who told him they were then sitting under a hedge about an hundred yards from him. The deemster bade the boy ask why he could not see them; the troy accordingly went to the place, put off his cap, and made his reverence, and returning, said it was the will of God they should not be seen, but the gentlemen were sorry for his incredulity. The deemster then pulled out a crown-piece, and asked the boy what it was ? he answeredhe could not tell. He then bade him ask the gentlemen: from whom the child, returning again, told him they said it was silver, and had shown him a great deal of such silver, and some yellow silver besides.
" Another day, a neighboring minister going into the mountains, the boy told him they where then in a barn hard by, exercising the pike. He went to the place pointed out, and saw a pitchfork moving about in all the proper postures of exercise; upon which, rushing into the barn, the fork was struck to the roof, but no person to be seen Another day, the boy came and told Captain Stevenson, that one of them came with his hand bloody, and said he had been in a battle in Ireland. The Captain marked the day, and though they had no news for nearly a month after, yet, when it did come, it agreed exactly with the time Colonel Wolseley had given the Irish a considerable defeat.
'' I could give you," adds this author, " an hundred other instances during their stay, which was above a month; but, at last, the king came with his fleet into Ramsay Bay, which, one of them telling the other before the boy, he answered, it was well the King was there in person, for if he had sent never so many generals, his affairs would not prosperand, speaking to the boy, told him they must go with the king into Ireland; that he might tell the people of the island that there would be a battle fought between Midsummer and St. Columbus day, upon which the future fortune of Ireland would depend, which exactly agreed with the battle of the Boyne; that the war would last ten or twelve years, but that, in the end, King William would be victorious over all his enemies."
Nor is the belief in these supernatural appearances become obsolete. To this moment, every damsel who rambles beyond the precincts of the farm-yard at night, incurs the danger of meeting fairies, and it is seldom they return without circumstantial history of miraculous adventures. Collins, the poet, calls Man the " fairy land ;" and as to the influence of witchcraft, it is an article of faith standing on much higher ground than the creed.
If a fisherman makes one or two unsuccessful trips, he instantly proceeds to exorcise his boat by burning gorse or straw in the centre, and carrying the flaming material to every crevice where it is supposed the evil spirit may continue to lurk. If a cow is diseased, or any difficulty occurs in churning, the operation of the evil eye is immediately suspected, and a strict inquiry is made as to who may have been lately upon the spot, for the power of doing mischief is by no means confined to a few malignant individuals, but seems to be generally ascribed by every one to an adversary, or a rival.
Conversing on this subject with a farmer of good information on general affairs, he expressed the utmost astonishment, not illumined with terror, at the scepticism with which I listened to some of these supernatural histories, in confirmation of which, he related one story, to the truth of which, he offered to bring unquestionable evidence, if my unbelief should yet maintain its ground. He asserted, that two years before that time, he and a neighbor were in treaty for the sale and purchase of a poney, but, differing about the price, his neighbor, vexed at his disappointment, put an evil eye upon the beast' who instantly, and without other visible cause, became so lame as to be wholly useless, and so continued for twelve months; when, by extraordinary good luck, another person called on him, who had on his part the power to discern these unrighteous influences where they had been exercised, and to do them away by a counter charm. No sooner had this man cast his eyes on the animal, than he pronounced his lameness to have originated with the malignant purchaser, and after performing certain ceremonies, he assured my informer that the spell was broken, and that within a few hours, the poney would be restored to perfect soundness and strength, all which, in course, happened as foretold.
The witches and fairies of Man are neither supposed to combine, nor to produce exactly the same effects by their power, the former being wholly employed in acts of aggression, whilst the latter have a mixed jurisdiction, and can produce both good and evil by their operations. They are accustomed to perform certain frolics, which show some degree of humor and whim in their propensities: they are also easily assail} able by bribes: thus the dairy-maid, who would spare herself unusual exertion, regularly makes the offering of a small pat of butter, or a piece of cheese curd, which is affixed to the wall of the dairy, and is believed to propitiate these invisible agents. The livers of fowls and fish are uniformly sacrificed to the fairies. At Midsummer-eve, when their power is of unlimited extent, flowers send herbs are the only barriers to their incursions, and these are regularly spread on the door and window sill to protect the inhabitants.
But one of the most curious ceremonies, and which, I believe, is peculiar to the Isle of Man, is, that of hunting the wren, founded on a tradition, that in former times, a fairy of uncommon beauty exerted such undue influence over the male population, that she at various times seduced numbers to follow her footsteps, till, by degrees, she led them into the sea, where they perished. This barbarous exercise of power had continued for a great length of time, till it was apprehended the island would be exhausted of its defenders, when a knight-errant sprung up, who discovered some means of countervailing the charms used by this syren, and even laid a plot for her destruction, which she only escaped at the moment of extreme hazard, by taking the form of a wren; but though she evaded instant annihilation, a spell was cast upon her, by which she was condemned on every succeeding New Year's Day, to reanimate the same form, with the definitive sentence, that she must ultimately perish by a human hand. In consequence of this well authenticated legend, on the specified anniversary, every man and boy in the island (except those who have thrown off the trammels of superstition), devote the hours between sun-rise and sun-set, to the hope of extirpating the fairy, and woe be to the individual birds of this species, who shew themselves on this fatal day to the active enemies of the race: they are pure sued, pelted, fired at, and destroyed, without mercy, and their feathers preserved with religious care, it being an article of belief, that every one of the relics gathered in this laudable pursuit, is an effectual preservative from shipwreck for one year; and that fisherman would be considered as extremely foolhardy, who should enter upon his occupation without such a safeguard.
Another tradition preserved by Waldron in his Account of the Isle of Man, relates, that abut fifty years before his residence there, an adventure had been achieved, of which there were living witnesses in his time. It originated in a project, which was conceived by some philosophers, to fish up treasures from the deep, by the means of a diving-bell. A venturous hero being enclosed in one of these machines, was let down, and, in his descent, continued to pull for more rope, till all they had on board was completely expended, though such had been their precaution, that they had gone out provided with a length of line which, according to their calculation, was sufficient to descend at least double the number of leagues that the moon is computed be distant from the earth! At such an extreme depth as this adventurer had explored, great wonders might reasonably be expected, and such he encountered, for when, after awaiting his further signal till their patience was exhausted, his companions wound up the rope, and brought the Submarine traveller to the upper regions again. He gave a most splendid account of the scenes he had left." After," said he, " had passed the region of fishes, I descended into a pure element, clear as air, through which, as floated, I saw the bottom of the watery world paved with coral and a shining kind of pebble, which glittered like sun-beams reflected on glass. On looking through the little windows of my prison, I saw streets and squares on every side, ornamented with huge pyramids of crystal, and one building in particular attracted my attention, composed of mother of pearl, embossed with shells of various descriptions, and all colours. Having with infinite difficulty forced my enclosure towards this palace, I got entrance into a very spacious room; the furniture was amber, and the floor inlaid with diamonds, topazes, rubies, and emeralds: I saw also several rings, chains, and caskanets, of all manner of precious stones, set after our fashions, which, I suppose, had been the prey of the winds and waves. These were hanging loosely on the jasper walls, and I could easily have made a booty of immense value, if, at the moment when I had edged my machine near enough to reach them, you had not interposed between me and my good fortune, by the precipitancy with which I was drawn back at the moment of success."
This story, which, at least, proves the poetical talent of the adventurer, may serve the metrical tale-mongers of the present day, and give a little variety and relief from the tiresome sameness of silver moon-beams and verdant meadows, especially if duly interspersed with the loves of the mermen and maids, who, according to the narrater, inhabit these splendid abodes.
* See Waldron's Works, page 170.